The film has been noted for being star Zuniga's first leading role after her minor part in The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1983), as well as establishing a contemporary cult following as a midnight movie.
Kelly Fairchild is a university student who has suffered from a recurring nightmare in which a strange man is burning to death inside her childhood home. Adding to her stress, Kelly is also about to take part in her sorority's initiation ritual which entails her and a group of pledges breaking into her wealthy father's multi-level department store after hours. Kelly, her friend Marcia, and roommate Alison are the three main pledges.
At a sanitarium miles away, several prisoners free themselves and murder a nurse. The following morning, Kelly's parents Frances and Dwight receive a phone call from the sanitarium notifying them of the incident. That afternoon, Kelly pitches an idea for her term paper to Peter, the graduate assistant in her psychology course. Kelly explains her dream to Peter, and tells him she suffered amnesia as a child. At dinner, Frances forbids Kelly's meetings with Peter, who is attempting to analyze her nightmare. Meanwhile, Dwight is murdered outside as he goes to his car.
At the department store, the night porter is murdered while doing rounds. Kelly, Marcia, and Alison arrive there to steal the uniform; the three split up, and Kelly heads to the lounge upstairs to get one of the spare uniforms. Meanwhile, head sorority sister Megan lets Chad, Ralph, and Andy break into the department store to scare the girls. Megan and Andy are killed shortly after; Kelly and Marcia hear the commotion, and run into Ralph and Chad hiding in a dressing room. They attempt to leave the building, but are locked inside.
At the university, Peter comes across newspaper clippings detailing the fire Kelly described in her dream; the articles reveal the burning man's identity as Jason Randall, a floor manager at the Fairchild department store who was married to Frances. He believes Kelly's dream to be a memory of her biological father, Jason, being burned in an altercation with Frances' lover Dwight, whom Kelly believes to be her real father. A recent article on the inmates' revolt at the sanitarium reveals Jason being a groundskeeper and one of the prisoners that escaped.
Stuck inside the store, the coeds drink wine together. Alison and Chad leave to use the bathroom, and discover the night porter's body. Panicked, Alison runs into the men's bathroom to get Chad, only to find him dead in a bathroom stall. A frantic Alison runs downstairs to a security desk where she is viciously stabbed to death. Meanwhile, Peter drives to the Fairchild house to notify Frances. At the store, Ralph is shot dead with a harpoon gun in front of Marcia, who flees to find Kelly. They hide in a freight elevator which is infiltrated by the killer, who pulls Marcia into the elevator shaft. Kelly escapes and flees into the store's boiler room, where she encounters Jason Randall. He chases her to the roof, and she pushes him off, killing him.
Peter and Frances arrive at the store and find Jason's body outside. Inside, Peter sees who he believes to be Kelly standing in the store foyer and embraces her before she then stabs him in the stomach. Kelly runs into the room and is faced with a reflection of herself; her disturbed twin sister Terry, who had been institutionalized as a child when Frances left their father and married Dwight, and whom Kelly has no memory of. Just as Terry is about to murder Kelly, she is shot to death by Frances. The film ends as Peter is taken away in an ambulance, while Kelly stares at her mother in disbelief.
Concept and casting
Screenwriter Charles Pratt, Jr., a recent graduate of the University of Southern California Film School, wrote the script for the film after being asked to produce a low-budget horror film for producers Jock Gaynor, Bruce Lansbury, and Scott Winant for New World Pictures.
According to Pratt, he initially cobbled together the concept of the sorority initiation pledge taking place within a basic department store, but the concept later had to be re-worked when the film scouts were unable to find a standard department store location in Dallas that was available for shooting.
Lead actress Daphne Zuniga was cast in the film following her minor role in the horror film The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1982), and was a student at the University of California, Los Angeles at the time of being cast. Recalling the experience, she said: "It was a great part. I got to play twins: a good sister and an evil sister. I got shot in the back on-screen. It was pretty heavy for a first role." The majority of the supporting cast were local actors from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, including Hunter Tylo and Joy Jones, both of whom were students at Brookhaven College.
British director Peter Crane signed on to direct the project, and Vera Miles was cast after a meeting with Crane.
The Initiation was filmed on location in Dallas, Texas in the Summer of 1983. Director Peter Crane began filming material on the production. Many of the early point-of-view shots in the film and the footage at the insane asylum in the beginning of the film were shot by Crane.
After several days of shooting, the shooting schedule had already fallen behind, and Crane was fired and replaced with Larry Stewart, who completed the rest of the film. The difference in technique and style between the two directors explains slight aesthetic differences from some of the film's earlier footage.
The multi-level Dallas Market Center served as the location for the Fairchild department store, and the crew shot the film during evenings while the building was closed. The campus scenes were filmed at Southern Methodist University, while the dream lab sequences were shot in an abandoned Holiday Inn hotel, where the production design had refitted a maid's closet to appear as the room.
The Initiation was released in December 1984, but was overshadowed by Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), released the month before. It screened sporadically throughout the country playing in one or two-week runs. Although it passed the MPAA's restrictions without being cut, the British Board of Film Classification cut nearly a minute of gore from the film, specifically from Hunter Tylo's gruesome death scene.
Few published reviews of the film during the time of its release exist; however, contemporary reception of the film has been mixed. Currently on Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 30% audience score with an average rating of 2.5/5 based on 302 user ratings.
Film Threat gave the film an unfavorable review, writing, "The Initiation is the latest forgotten horror film to receive the Anchor Bay DVD treatment, and I'd be at a loss to tell you why." Film School Rejects, however, said the film "has all the hallmarks of being an awful movie without being an awful movie... it’s fun, and that should count for something." Film.com gave the film a negative review, calling it "a bad movie with bad ideas that are badly executed," while TV Guide summarized the film as "boring slasher stuff," noting that "Top-billed [Vera] Miles and [Clu] Gulager barely appear in the film, which would make a terrifically dreadful double bill with the similar The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1983), also featuring Zuniga."
In Legacy of Blood: A Comprehensive Guide to Slasher Movie, Jim Harper called the film a "lackluster effort that never quite lives up to the abilities of its cast," further noting: "Even with the soap opera ending, the film isn't entirely successful, mostly because of the terrible script. There's a wealth of unnecessary jargon and cheap dialogue, not to mention some notable inconsistencies. Zuniga does her best to rise above the bad material and turns in a great performance, but Gulager and Miles sleepwalk through their parts."
Irrespective of the film's critical reception, it has garnered a contemporary cult following.
The film was released on VHS by EMI Pictures in the late 1980s. It was released on DVD by Anchor Bay Entertainment in 2002, and was later reissued in 2011 by Image Entertainment's "Midnight Madness" Series.
In August 2016, it was revealed that Arrow Films would be releasing the film for the first time on Blu-ray in both the United States and the United Kingdom. It was released on Blu-ray November 8, 2016 in the United States.